A long road ahead for Yemeni women

Women led many of the protests, and were vital in the sustainability of the movement during the Yemeni revolution, but as preparations for the national dialogue to be held under the transitional unity government go ahead, many women fear that the rival political parties will only unite around one matter: excluding women’s issues.

[Read in Arabic]

Three months before the start of the revolution, Southern Movement activist Zahra Salih, was arrested in the city of Aden on 8 November 2010 and held incommunicado for months without access to a lawyer. Zahra told Amnesty International that, “prior to her release, she was ordered to sign a declaration pledging to cease her activities in the Southern Movement and to get married, which she refused to do.”

Zahra was an anomaly in a society where street and public activism was male dominated. Yet, the Yemeni revolution in January 2011 changed that perception as thousands of single and married women went out to the street. The visibility of these women in the public arena became an iconic symbol of women’s empowerment. In comparison to other Arab spring states, the sheer number of Yemeni women in the streets for a period of 12 months became a point of pride for Yemeni citizens.

These women came from various backgrounds. It was not just women from elite educated urban circles. On  the contrary, it was women from urban and rural areas, educated and illiterate, rich and poor who came together in solidarity with the Yemeni men to call for freedom. The squares of change became the epicentre of networking, learning and awareness raising.

Women in the public sphere

Women participated by being in the front lines, volunteering at the various committees in the squares, nursing the wounded, making food for the revolutionaries, documenting the uprising, and by encouraging their family members to hold steadfast. Many mothers camped in Change Square with their husbands, and children. The gathering of the family in this public arena, day and night, was a transformation for some who are not accustomed to mixing in public as this cartoon illustration by Kamal Sharaf shows.

Cartoon: man on pavement walking in front of women clad in burqa. Mouse couple on road in foreground side-by-side. Man: “God help us, I hope no one we know see us.” Mouse: “see how wide
the street is, this is how much I love you"

During the beginning of the revolution this mixing was common (with time this changed). In fact many fathers, brothers, and husbands encouraged their female relatives to participate. Some female medical volunteers and other protesters even slept in the squares without their male guardians, challenging cultural taboos. 

In a society where women’s portraits are not commonly seen on large billboards, Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman’s photo has spread throughout the squares and men proudly hung her photo in their tents.

By being openly active in the streets, women leaders uttered their names publicly, and became figures on their own merit - not necessarily through family lineage. Their male relatives proudly accepted this, despite the fact that it is customary for some traditional men in Yemen not to reveal the names of their female relatives, and instead refer to them as “the family”.

Shayma al-Ahdal, contributed to the facebook group the uprising of women in the Arab world with a photo of herself and the words: “my name is Shaymaa al-Ahadal and I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world... my brother is too embarrassed to declare my name and my mother’s name”. The facebook group received a significant number of contributions from Yemeni women stating their own personal demands. Many focused on health reform because of the extremely high maternal mortality rate, the gender gap in literacy rates, the low number of political participation (only one woman in parliament), and social norms.

Articulating gender-specific demands was not a top priority for many female revolutionaries in 2011 who placed them in the broader framework of revolutionary discourse of equality and justice. Even after women were beaten by Islamist hardliners in the square, and even after a gender-segregation policy began by building a dividing wall in the square after months of mixing, the discourse remained in the broader framework of equal citizenship. Authors of the “Strong voice” report noted that the Charter of the peaceful Youth Revolution - which was the document formulated by the independent youth with the objectives and an action plan for the future – “contained none of the specific demands that women had called for”, and expressed women’s rights under the umbrella of equal citizenship.

Transitional period

Articulating women-specific demands began more clearly with the transitional period, as women felt neglected after the reduced reliance on their participation in the political process, and the lack of inclusion in the closed-door meetings. In addition, women have not felt any direct changes in their daily life particularly in the security sector. The last year witnessed a large number of internally displaced people, and a number of armed conflicts which had  a severe negative impact on women. The majority of women interviewed by Oxfam in a recent report entitled “Still Waiting for Change in Yemen” said that despite the handover of power, there has been deterioration in their lives in the areas of access to food, jobs and improved security.

This handover began one year ago, when former president Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) power transfer deal after months of negotiations. The deal involved the transfer of power to Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, who was his vice president for 18 years, in return for immunity from prosecution. A national unity government has since been created for a two-year period, evenly divided between the traditional opposition, the Joint Meeting Party (JMP) and the former ruling party the General people’s Congress (GPC). Phase two of this transitional period is now under way and preparations for the national dialogue are taking place followed by the constitutional reform process.

Women’s political participation in these processes is seen as a top priority for educated women in urban areas. While the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2014 calls “upon all concerned parties to ensure the protection of women and children, to improve women’s participation in conflict resolution and encourages all parties to facilitate the equal and full participation of women at decision-making levels”, and while the GCC emphasizes women’s participation in the transitional period, a majority of women feel that this has been neglected and fear, due to their mistrust of traditional parties, that the disputing political parties will unite around only one issue: excluding women.

The GCC initiative, while highlighting the importance of women, only states that women should be represented “appropriately” in the national unity government, and does not dictate a 30 percent quota which was a demand agreed upon by the women’s movement, and later articulated at a national conference on women in March 2012 which was intended to unite women’s demands for inclusion in the dialogue process.

Hence, appointing three female ministers was considered “appropriate” representation for some, and even hailed as a success by others. The important technical committee, set up by President Hadi to define the scope of the upcoming National Dialogue, included individuals with high caliber and street credibility, but women initially represented only 20 per cent. Then in September 2012, President Hadi issued another decree adding six new male members to the technical committee, which shifted the gender balance even further and decreased the percentage of women to 16 percent.

National Dialogue

Given these negative indicators, women are naturally frustrated about their marginalization and worry about the upcoming national dialogue. To alleviate some of these fears the technical committee recently published a detailed document on the Rules and procedures of the six-month National Dialogue conference which emphasizes that women will be present in all committees.

On 28 November 2012 Jamal Benomar, the United Nations’ special advisor on Yemen said that an agreement has been reached to resolve the allocation of seats for the national dialogue. According to media reports, 40 seats (representing 7 percent of the 565 seats) are allocated for “women” but another media reported that women will have 30 percent representation. That could mean that women will be included in other groups such as political parties, youth etc.

The National Dialogue conference will be divided into 12 working groups based on different topics with a minimum of 30 participants in each. Women’s rights are not one of these 12 points and were only specifically mentioned once under the topic: rights and duties along with youth, children, the marginalized and others. This is because gender issues were placed in the broader context of equal citizenship. It will be up to individual participants to bring up the specific gender issues in each group. This will mean that the selection process, which remains vague, is of utmost importance in order to make sure that these issues will be a top political priority, and especially in the constitutional reform committee, which will be the basis for protecting women’s rights for years to come.

The question that arises for women is who represents them in this conference? Being a woman should not be the only criteria for representing women, as not all women would prioritize women’s issues. The lack of clarity over the criteria for participation means that women are unable to prepare ahead of time and to select candidates. Will they be selected from the women’s movement? Based on geographic or political affiliations? If so, what will happen to the independent women? And how would one deal with multiple identities? For example, would a woman from Aden who is a member of the Islah or Socialist party be chosen to represent women, her party, or the South? All these questions remain a challenge for women today.

Other challenges include the fact that Yemeni women continue to face threats, slander, and harassments by religious or political forces in attempts to silence them. The lack of independent media means that groups in conflict use media to settle their disputes, and independent activists, men and women are caught in between. Just as slander was a method used by the former regime to prevent women from protesting, today, media smear campaigns and slander have been used against independent female and male activists in an attempt to tarnish their reputation. Imams resorted to the use of takfir calling the novelist and activist Boushra al-Maktary, an infidel after an article she published, making her fear, as she told journalist Judith Spiegel, that “Killing me is a ticket to heaven.”

What we know is that without the real inclusion of women, the process for change is doomed to fail. As Dr. Sheila Carapico said at the Yemen in Transition conference “no matter how marvelous a social movement is, it does not mean the outcome is social justice or a democracy.”

Nevertheless, despite the obstacles ahead, one must not lose hope. The revolution gave women a voice, boosted their self-confidence and made them believe that the impossible is possible. “Something historic and remarkable has happened that is socially and culturally important and should be recognized as such” added Dr. Carapico.

This article is republished as part of 5050's series exploring themes to be discussed at the  Nobel Women's Initiative conference  Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World  May 28-31, Belfast, Ireland.  Jennifer Allsopp and Heather McRobie are reporting from Belfast. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference 

About the author

Atiaf Zaid Alwazir is a Yemeni researcher, blogger and activist. She worked as a member of the youth coalition drafting the "principles of the youth revolution". She chronicles the Yemeni revolution on her blog "Women from Yemen"